The disproportionate number of black students suspended and expelled in Illinois’ school districts under a “zero tolerance” philosophy is not the best, or only, solution to disciplining school children, says Austin’s state senator.

Kimberly Lightford, who represents the 4th District, said the zero tolerance model used in some school districts has had negative consequences for black students in particular. Lightford’s legislation, Senate Bill 3004, is currently in committee, but she hopes it will be brought up in the upcoming veto session this fall.

The bill would revise the current school code to limit out-of-school suspensions for certain minor offenses. The bill would require school districts to implement alternative consequences, including educational and behavioral support services. 

Lightford stressed that her bill is not meant to restrict punishment for severe infractions, like students bringing weapons to school or violence done to classmates or school staff. She added that her bill does not single out a specific race of students either. 

But the disparity of black students receiving suspensions and expulsions in Illinois and other states prompted her to develop the bill, according to Lightford, who hosted a community forum on this issue in July at Proviso Central Math and Science Academy in Forest Park.  

Lightford said she’s looking to remove zero tolerance in favor of more alternative measures, like counseling, probation, or substance abuse treatment for certain drug offenses. 

“I just feel passionately that these policies are too extreme; each case should be viewed individually,” she said, adding that she’s heard from many concerned parents about such policies. 

Her bill would also limit the circumstances under which a student may be arrested on school grounds “unless otherwise required by statute for a specific criminal offense.” Parents must be notified of their child’s pending arrest before being taken into custody. The arrest restrictions apply to school hours as well as school vehicles, like buses, or a school event or activity on school grounds. 

Lightford added that the goal should be to keep students in class as long as they’re not a harm or major disruption.

“When you put them out, then where are they going to go?” she said.

Supporters of the bill include Illinois African American Family Commission and Illinois Safe Schools Alliance; opponents include School Management Alliance and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, according to Lightford, who filed her bill in February of this year. 

Lightford noted the issue doesn’t just impact the Chicago Public Schools, where the disparity with black students is significantly high, but also many suburban districts. She said her goal is also to keep at-risk students from becoming dropouts, something that’s more likely to happen if more alternatives aren’t being provided.

“We have to find a way to keep them in school and engaged in a learning environment,” she said. “I do understand misconduct, violence, sexual abuse and assault. I’m not saying those students shouldn’t be removed from school. But a first case for minor offenses should not lead to them being kicked out.”

Provisions of Sen. Lightford’s bill

  • Prohibits school boards from establishing zero-tolerance policies unless required by state or federal law
  • Limits out of school suspensions that last longer than three days to very limited circumstances, including to protect the safety of other students and staff, and to avoid significant disruptions
  • Requires school districts to provide behavioral support services to children suspended or expelled for more than three days
  • Prohibits law enforcement from arresting children for misdemeanors at school, except in certain specific circumstances
  • Requires schools to submit detailed reports explaining why each suspension that lasts more than three days is necessary
  • Prohibits school employees from encouraging students to drop out rather than face discipline